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Science Books

February 22, 2007

The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
Jack El-Hai (2007)
ISBN: 0470098309

When we hear the word lobotomy our initial thoughts may turn to the closing stages of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, where the only humane thing left for Jack Nicholson's newly lobotomized character, Randle McMurphy, was to have a friendly inmate knock him off. An intentionally unnerving anti-lobotomy statement, certainly, but Jack El-Hai, winner of the June Roth Memorial Award for Medical Journalism, reveals that thousands of lobotomies were routinely being carried out every year only a decade or so prior to Cuckoo's Nest. According to El-Hai, medical science in early-twentieth century America believed that it was faced with a psychiatric crisis of overwhelming proportions, and appeared all too ready to embrace new treatments, regardless of how extreme they might seem. The man to get the lobotomy ball rolling was Walter Freeman, widely considered to be a genius, who believed that having a poke around in the brain's prefrontal cortex with an ice pick and hammer was likely to reduce psychotic symptoms in patients. Freeman's was a one-man crusade to treat the mentally ill so that they could be freed from indefinite incarceration and integrated back into society. For what they're worth, patient accounts show how some believed that their lives had improved since their lobotomy, but by the 60s the tide had turned and lobotomies were considered barbaric. It is in this respect that El-Hai captures a fascinating change in cultural perspective toward the practice of lobotomy, and mental illness itself. While The Lobotomist addresses a dark and disturbing topic, El-Hai manages to capture the complexities and nuances that comprised the character of Walter Freeman.

Fly Me to the Moon: An Insider's Guide to the New Science of Space Travel
Edward Belbruno (2007), with a foreword by Neil deGrasse Tyson
ISBN: 0691128227

One of the reasons that a human hasn't set foot on the moon for decades is because fueling such missions has become prohibitively expensive. Now, the innovation of Edward Belbruno, President of Innovative Orbital Design at the Department of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University, has developed a way to cut the costs of space travel and get the space program back on track. Belbruno has devised a pioneering mathematical model - a three-body solution for low-thrust minimum-fuel trajectories - that exploits optimal fuel-efficient trajectories to drastically reduce fuel consumption and potentially extend mission distances. Using Belbruno's model would mean that missions would take substantially longer - a trip to the moon may take 3 months rather than 3 days - but these low-fuel trips would allow supplies to be transported very cheaply, and would be the first step toward lunar or planetary space stations. While at first glance Fly Me To The Moon may appear as a dry and highly technical book, Belbruno manages to convey the research process he undertook in a highly entertaining manner. Fly Me To The Moon also succeeds admirably as a narrative text, which is mostly due to how Belbruno uses the antics of his peers and colleagues as a suitable backdrop to the theory and real-world application of his ideas. Scientist or layman, Fly me To The Moon is an entertaining and important book.

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